Can art funding ever be ethical?

31st May 2012 By Susheel Gokarakonda

Last year, doused in black paint, protesters gathered in the Tate Modern to perform a mass exorcism. But this wasn’t any new age witchcraft – they were attempting to rid the arts of the evils of BP and oil. BP are one of the largest sponsors of the arts in the UK. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey notes that they have “led the way in business support”. This year they are one of the leading sponsors for the Olympics, but their reach doesn’t stop there. The Cultural Olympiad, including the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival and the British Museum’s ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ exhibition, are all sponsored by BP.

But what’s the problem? Indeed corporations have for years sponsored the arts. It’s incredibly obvious with the Carling Academy, the O2 Arena and the Saatchi Gallery. And, you may cry, why not? Surely the arts need the money that corporations can bring. In fact, they desperately need the money since the slashes to arts funding a couple of years ago. In October 2010 it was announced that there would be a 25 percent cut to arts funding as part of the austerity measures.

The leading public funder of arts, the Arts Council, was forced to cut funding by over 10percent across the board. Some projects lost out completely, such as the theatre company London Bubble. The group now have to raise £100,000 each year to keep going. Others have had projected budgets until 2014 slashed by a half, such as the National Federation of Music Societies. To be fair to the Arts Council, many groups have only been cut by up to 10 percent, and they have offered funding to new bodies such as Streetwise Opera who use opera to help 500 homeless people a year. It’s not all doom and gloom.

However, this does show us that money is needed – especially to keep art as open and free as possible. Corporations essentially donate to art to make themselves look better. It’s not all charity, the Deputy Chairman of Coutts asserts: “This is a marketing exercise…we get reflected glory…bankers could do with any reflected glory we can get.” And herein lives the problem. If the main reason that art is sponsored is to improve a sponsors image, then the choice of art to sponsor becomes part of business.

 What business would want to support a fringe group? It would suit them better to have their name likened to Shakespeare. In the art world there are fears that for all the good that corporations do in bolstering funds for art they simultaneously hinder the long term future of art. What of the next generation? Who will support them as they grow and experiment? If sell out shows of the greats are all we support, then talent may not flourish as it has in the past.

 There are environmental objection too particularly with BP. The protesters in the Tate Modern were not so worried about the potential harm to the growth of the art world but rather the message that BP sponsorship gives. Pressure group Platform say the involvement with BP “represents a serious stain on the UK’s cultural patrimony” through the association of natural disasters. Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota responded by arguing that “the fact that they had one major incident in 2010 does not mean we should not be taking support from them.” 

His words are fair, perhaps. But the question does need answering. Why are arts bodies being forced to take money from oil in the first place? Surely there is a better way?

Sarah Shapcott